Monday, January 17, 2011

The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II by Edvard Radzinsky

I don’t usually read two books in a row on the same subject but I borrowed these from a friend and need to return them. The first book, Robert Massie’s The Romanovs: The Final Chapter read as a sequel to The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II by Edvard Radzinsky. The latter did much of the research and digging into numerous Russian archives, many of which he was denied access. However, Radzinsky persevered. The result of his decades-long labors is an amazing work of history, giving us a glimpse into a heinous act covered up for most of a century.

Radzinsky reproduces many entries from the diaries of the royal family themselves: Nicholas II, his beloved wife Alexandra and some of their five children. This brings the tsar and his family to life, as people with fears, blind faith and uncertainties of the future. Radzinsky paints an entirely different picture of ‘Nicholas the Bloody’, as a weak-willed man, susceptible to the whims of his tougher relatives and his unhinged wife who was under the spell of the mad monk Rasputin, the Holy Devil.

I wonder if Radzinsky’s book would have been published had the Soviet rule not ended when it did. Much of the work shows the propaganda, lies and subterfuge employed by the Bolsheviks, the Whites and the secret police to sway the Russian citizens into the herd mentality. And it worked. The population went along with whichever way the wind was blowing that day. Or maybe it was in fear for their lives. Although the repressive regime suppressed the tongues of several generations, many people came forward to talk to Radzinsky, giving eyewitness accounts of the tsar’s last two years.

There seems to be a lot that got lost in the translation from Russian to English (this edition was translated by Marian Schwartz) or perhaps editing follows a different set of rules in Russia, but the book is not an easy read, especially for those not already well-schooled on Russian history. He leaves a lot out. For example, on page 177 he states that ‘everyone remarked on the tsar’s strange indifference at that terrible time’. Who commented? What did they say?

Radzinsky puts more emphasis on the facts rather than the flow. He interposes his personal opinion on many of the events or people. He switches back and forth between Grand Duchess Olga, Nicholas’ sister and Grand Duchess Olga, Nicholas’ daughter without distinguishing which one. One may think it’s easy to discern between a woman and her niece but sometimes the vague details makes it difficult.

He mentions several times that Alexandra had the blood of Mary Stuart in her veins. Mary Stuart got her head cut off by her cousin Elizabeth I after being imprisoned in the Tower of London for nineteen years. Where is the parallel?

Radzinsky compares Grand Duke Michael Romanov’s secretary Brian Johnson to Mr. Pickwick. Who?

Despite the difficult read, this is definitely a book to save and read again. There is a lot of history here that isn’t taught in school and probably wouldn’t be seen if it was for Radzinsky’s diligence in seeking out facts that many people died to keep secret.

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